The mainstream and the avant-garde meet in the field of film scoring. Even those who don’t follow instrumental music are likely to own a few soundtracks. When movie scores break big, their themes are seared in the public’s ears. Despite their lack of lyrics, memorable themes are often sung; “Star Wars”, “Jaws” and “Rocky” are prime examples.
Perhaps the year’s most iconic movie theme is that of “Woman Woman” (which first appeared, along with the character, in “Batman Vs. Superman.” One of the most effective scores within a film is Michael Abels’ “Get Out.” But when the music is separated from the movies, these soundtracks seem less cohesive. We’re more interested in scores that play well as albums. For this reason, our year-end list is more eclectic than most. Only one pick debuted in wide release. One is a just-released score for a film released in 2013; another is a score to a 2018 film. They all share one common element: they can be enjoyed without the visuals. We hope that you enjoy Rich’s Picks for the Best Film Scores of 2017!
Alexandre Desplat ~ The Shape of Water (Universal)
Imagine Amelie crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth, and you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the movie – and the score. Desplat does an incredible job balancing pathos and terror, romance and intrigue, for a movie that is already collecting its share of accolades. The composer is subtle when he needs to be subtle, overt when he needs to be overt, walking a tightrope yet never falling.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ IRIS (Erased Tapes)
People tend to forget the early year releases, but January’s IRIS soundtrack makes a lasting impact. The results are exactly what one might expect from the pairing of this duo with a 40-piece orchestra. The melancholic score serves as a foil to the much darker film, but as all of this year’s picks, it stands well on its own, and we still remember it nearly a year after its release.
Clint Mansell ~ Loving Vincent (Milan Records)
Clint Mansell never writes a bad score, as evidenced by his romantic score for the tale of a troubled painter. The film is one of 2017’s true originals, as every frame is painted. Add the lovely music, and enter into a disorienting world that mimics the mindset of the protagonist. Through the clouds of depression and swirls of paint, an intense beauty shines through, like sunflowers on canvas, still bright after all these years.
Hammock ~ Columbus (Hammockmusic)
Many people missed this one when it was released last month. Unless you’re on the Hammock mailing list, you’re probably reading about it here for the first time. Columbus is one of the year’s loveliest and most cohesive scores. Due to the subject matter, it possesses a far lighter tone than Mysterium (whose closing track is used in the trailer). The mallets of “SOM” make it a highlight, but the real triumph is the overall, dreamlike mood.
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch ~ Blade Runner 2049 (Alcon Sleeping Giant)
The movie was burdened with great expectations, and ended up a critical success and a box office disappointment. The soundtrack also faced its own drama, as original composer Jóhann Jóhannsson dropped out of the project and was replaced by Hans Zimmer. Yet those who feared a bombastic work were relieved to discover that Zimmer’s score was a worthy homage to Vangelis, down to the inclusion of “Tears in Rain.” In an ironic twist, Jóhannsson’s score for “mother!” was eliminated before release, leaving the composer without a horse in this year’s race.
Oneohtrix Point Never ~ Good Time (Warp)
It’s possible that more people heard the score than saw the film, but our main takeaway from the project was that film producers need more music like this. Good Time is angry and groovy in equal measures, but most of all, it’s surprising. An aura of menace is present throughout, detectable even without the broken glass and obscene utterances. The best moments may sound like John Carpenter, but there’s no mistaking the fact that this is a film score for the new century.
Ross Blake ~ Pretty en Rose (Horse Arm Records)
The film was released in 2013, the score only a couple weeks ago. Pretty en Rose is an outlier in many ways. The film is an allusive documentary about lingerie designer Fifi Chachnil, directed by Angélique Bosio, starring Dita Von Teese. The score is a candy-colored collection of lounge, exotica and carnival music, encased in a confectionary bubble. Modern and retro mingle in a musical mirror of Chachnil’s pretty pink vision.
Stefano Guzzetti ~ Japanese Notebooks (Soundtrack to Manga Do) (Stella Recordings)
Another excellent offering from the Italian composer, Japanese Notebooks boasts exquisite packaging and great internal beauty. The film (out in 2018) documents the journey of graphic artist Igort’s trip to Japan; the album title echoes that of his book. While listening, one gains a sense of travel through the embedded field recordings and flourishes of orchestral grandeur. Closing piece “Thirteen Petals” may be the album’s highlight, but the set deserves to be heard as a whole.
Various Artists ~ Tasha Tudor A Still Water Story (Virgin Babylon)
We were wondering what World’s End Girlfriend might be up to after winning our Album of the Year award for Last Waltz. Turns out he was helping to coordinate an all-star cast for this documentary about one of Japan’s best loved children’s authors and illustrators. The score is sweet and childlike, filled with gentle music boxes and strings, an ode to childhood under a backdrop of winter. The wonder is that so many artists were able to work together to produce such a perfect flow.
William Ryan Fritch ~ Birkitshi – Eagle Hunters In A New World (Lost Tribe Sound)
William Ryan Fritch is no stranger to film scoring. His cinematic approach is tailor-made for the movies, and his music for Birkitshi adds drama and poignancy to an already effective film. We’re shocked that he hasn’t scored a mainstream movie yet; it’s only a matter of time, as he’s already released more great film music in the last few years than many composers do in a lifetime. Case in point: the newly extended version of The Old Believers, also on Lost Tribe Sound.
BONUS: Jonny Greenwood ~ Phantom Thread
Right now, all we’ve got is the trailer, although the composer of There Will Be Blood did tweet the sheet music of the main title earlier this season. But given the artist’s scoring pedigree, we think it will be a contender. The movie opens on Christmas, so in a couple weeks we’ll know if we were remarkably prescient or if we’ll end the holidays with egg on our faces.